When Mazen M. Abdallah went missing after picking up a customer Wednesday morning, other cabbies who regularly work the Buffalo airport set out looking for him in the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood.
Just before 7 a.m., one of them found his cab. The 55-year-old Palestinian native was dead in the back seat with a bullet in his head.
Homicide detectives who answered the call found the 700 block of Norfolk Avenue already crowded with more than 20 cabbies who openly wept and consoled each other over the death of Abdallah, who was loved by his co-workers and the customers he drove.
“Mazen was a person who talked to everybody and they were always happy when they had spoken with him. He had customers who would request him as their cab driver,” said taxi driver Lukhvin “Lucky” Singh.
Abdallah had started his shift at about 4 a.m. and was delivering his first fare of the day to Bailey-Kensington when he stopped answering the dispatcher’s two-way radio calls, co-workers said.
“Everybody was looking for him in the early morning. It was so sad. I’m so upset. Everybody is,” cab driver Alex Agha said. “Mazen was such a nice guy.”
Police believe the killer or killers shot and robbed him.
Then they placed Abdallah in the back seat of the white 2006 Lincoln Town Car, part of Airport Taxi’s fleet, and taken to Norfolk Avenue, where the cab was parked just south of Kensington Avenue.
Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards, at a news conference Wednesday in Niagara Square, said investigators are trying to piece together Abdallah’s whereabouts from 5 a.m. to the time his cab was found on Norfolk.
The identification number on the exterior of the cab was “57,” Richards said, hoping that information might stir a recollection from someone in the community. Anyone with information, the chief said, was asked to call or text the department’s confidential TIPCALL Line, 847-2255.
“It looks like it was robbery,” Richards said, and police believe it was random.
The tears and anxiety of Abdallah’s fellow cab drivers continued throughout Wednesday as they gathered in the break room of their dispatch building at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga to watch television news updates.
One of their own was gone, and they once again were confronted with the fact that driving a cab is hazardous work.
“Two years ago, I was driving a customer down to Jamestown and after I got off the Thruway, the customer put a shoelace around my neck and started choking me,” said Ibrahim Amin. “I crashed and got into a fight with the guy and held him for the police. He’s in prison until 2018 and I have a lifetime order of protection against him.”
Eleven years ago, just before Abdallah joined Airport Taxi, he owned a deli on Walden Avenue, where he was shot in the right leg during a stick-up involving three robbers.
One of the robbers accidentally shot himself in the foot and police were able to follow bloody footprints to a Sweet Avenue home where the men were arrested. The man who shot Abdallah was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
“He had a brush with death back then. He talked about it with me,” a fellow cab driver said, shaking his head over the violence his friend suffered then and now.
A woman in the Bailey-Kensington neighborhood told The Buffalo News she considered herself fortunate to be alive after having what she believes was a close encounter with those responsible for killing Abdallah.
“I got here around 5:30 a.m., and two men were walking away from the cab, headed up the street, as I parked my car directly in front of the taxi,” the woman said, requesting that her name be withheld.
She said she did not hear gunfire and that bolstered the belief that Abdallah was killed elsewhere and then driven to Norfolk.
“I spoke with the cab dispatcher who found him. He and the other cab drivers had all been out looking for him. It was a horrible thing. I can’t get this out of my head. Those two guys could have stopped and killed me,” she said.
Tania Wimes said she was shocked that the shooters abandoned the cab in front of her family’s house. “This is crazy. This type of stuff usually doesn’t happen in our neighborhood,” Wimes said.
The 700 block of Norfolk is filled with modest, well-kept homes, where the most exciting thing in the early morning is usually children waiting to board buses for school. On Wednesday, with all of the emergency vehicles and many cabs filling the street, schoolchildren had to be picked up on a nearby street.
Other Norfolk neighbors wanted Abdallah’s family to know that they were praying for them. “If you want to rob him, just rob him, don’t kill him. This is pointless,” a neighbor said.
Last Dec. 11, a dozen blocks away on Minnesota Avenue, a woman cab driver and her boyfriend were killed as they sat in her cab in front of their home. Someone approached the vehicle in the early-morning hours and riddled it with bullets. The case remains unsolved and police believe the couple had been targeted.
Murders of cab drivers in metro Buffalo are infrequent, though they often are targeted for robberies because crooks know they have cash. Police say they pay special attention to cab drivers and fast food delivery workers for exactly that reason.
Agha, a close friend of Abdallah, said that on Tuesday night they were watching a soccer game on the television in the cab company’s break room.
“I was rooting for my team from Madrid and they were losing. I was so upset and Mazen said to me, ‘Alex, there’s a half hour left. Take it easy. We’re going to win.’ He came back later and asked who won and I said our team. He said, ‘Alex, I’m happy for you. Thank God.’ We joked for a little while and then he left early. Then today, he is dead. Life is too short,” Agha said.
Stories like that demonstrated how close-knit the cab driver community is.
Not only were cabbies in large numbers on Norfolk Avenue as detectives processed the crime scene, but dozens of them showed up at Abdallah’s West Side home to comfort his brothers and other relatives.
“We came here 35 years ago from Palestine,” one of Abdallah’s brothers said of the family’s quest to make a better life in the United States.
Another brother said, “We appreciate the concerns and prayers of others.”
An American citizen, Abdallah was not married and did not have children, according to co-workers.
A service is set for 1:30 p.m. today in the Masjid An-Noor mosque on Heim Road in Getzville.
Offering a final word on Abdallah at Airport Taxi’s dispatch center was the company’s owner:
“He worked for me 11 years and he was a beautiful man,” Gianfranco Onorati said.